When I was working as a doctor in Boston City Hospital's Emergency Room, I spent way too much of my time treating wounds and injuries from violence. I saw far too many young people who would have been much better served sitting in a high school classroom than sitting bleeding in the ER.
One day I had enough; I wanted to stop stitching people up and sending them out to a world of more violence and figure out how to stop the violence in the first place. Thanks to federal support through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I began working with communities across the country to implement a different approach to preventing violence: one based on giving young people opportunities and skills, instead of putting them in jail.
But these efforts are in jeopardy. The Senate Appropriations Committee's proposed 2012 budget bill zeroed out all funding for the CDC's youth violence prevention activities. Though the House's draft version currently leaves the funding intact, the future of this critical funding is deeply uncertain.
Elimination of this $19.7 million in funding will have a devastating impact on efforts to prevent violence across the country. It will compromise decades of work-including my own-that are showing real results.
Our kids deserve the kind of opportunities this funding will support. Instead of simply ‘treating' violence after the fact, one arrest at a time, the CDC-supported public health approach hones in on what causes violence: it engages youth to create new opportunities for participation, leadership and economic opportunity, and dismantles barriers to peaceful streets and connected neighbors. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Violence Prevention funding comprise the only federal resources that support a public health approach to preventing violence.
My hometown of Boston has been ground zero for this kind of approach. In 2007, when a survey by the Boston Public Health Commission showed that between 48 and 59 percent of Boston young people have had a close family member or friend killed, the Commission developed a community organizing place-based strategy called VIP (Violence Intervention and Prevention). They're focusing on increased access to after-school and summer programming for middle school students, more employment opportunities for teens, cleaning up neighborhoods, and developing community-wide responses to violence to reinforce that violence is not acceptable. Doesn't this sound better than jail?
Cities are using this kind of approach cross the country, and are showing remarkable results. Minneapolis, a city in the CDC-funded UNITY City Network, documented a 40 percent drop in juvenile crime in 2 years-while arrest rates went down. A CDC-funded study of the effects of Baltimore's Safe Streets program has found reductions in overall gun violence, reductions of non-fatal shootings by up to 44 percent, and reductions of homicides by up to 56 percent. This approach also builds prosperity. Violence-free communities benefit from higher employment and greater investment in the local economy.
As our legislators negotiate a budget for our country, they will be faced with many competing priorities. None of our visions for a revitalized country --from workforce investment to economic development to education-can be actualized if our young people are not safe. At 19.7 million dollars, this federal funding is a small but vital investment in the health and future of our young people, and our communities. It must be protected.
We can't leave our kids' safety solely in the hands of criminal justice. Our young people need more opportunities, not more arrests.
Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith is an Adjunct Professor at Harvard School of Public Health and co-chair of the national youth violence initiative Urban Networks to Increase Thriving Youth. She is a board-certified internist and former Massachusetts public health commissioner.